Martín Caparrós: Sinfin [Endless]
It is perhaps not surprising that dystopian novels are coming out of Latin America, given the often grim political situation there. However, this is not a Nineteen Eighty-Four nor Agustina Bazterrica‘s Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh), another recent Argentinian dystopian novel but more of a Brave New World. The main subject is quite simply immortality.
Caparrós makes great play about the fact that it is our bodies that are the problem. They decay, they do not always behave the way we would like them to and, all too often, if one bit goes wrong, other bits follow. So the move towards immortality, by replacing our bodies with something more permanent was inevitable. This has indeed happened in this book. There is an official story – called The Most Beautiful Story – but this book is written by a woman who is aiming to tell the real story.
She gives us the full background. The idea that the soul lives on well after the body has died has a very long history. Indeed, this was the prominent view till not so long ago. Depending on your religious view, we were either reincarnated or went somewhere else after death – Heaven or Hell and the equivalent in other religions. However, fewer people believe this. We have since come up with other ideas: organ transplants, whole body transfusions and cryogenics.
We now go on to what has happened in the future which, for this book, is 2072. Since now and 2072, body parts have become more interchangeable. Indeed the rich are continually replacing worn-out body parts. Moreover, our need to work has been diminishing, thanks to robots (called kwasis in this book). Not only have they taken over virtually all the manual work, they can also do a lot of the intellectual work, such as accounting and administration. They can also provide sex.
Inevitably this trend has not been welcomed by everybody. There has been a Luddite-style movement and also a complaint that this is only available for the rich.
Three companies have set up to provide replaceable body parts but we focus on one called the Bodily Sisters (the English term is used in the Spanish text). It is Brazilian, but the CEO Senhora Maria, though often called simply Senhora, has made her HQ, well away from the hurly-burly, in Majuro in the Marshall Islands. The company has been trying to transfer a brain to a kwasi and has been experimenting with sheep and dolphins. It has been a spectacular failure.
We follow the development of the final product, known as 天. 天 is pronounced tsian and is the Chinese for heaven. Presumably you could not have a book called 天, so they chose Sinfin [Endless] which was a name that was considered for the product, not least because it looked vaguely Chinese, but it was rejected in favour of 天.
The story of the development is long and complex and requires breakthroughs not only in the transfer of a human brain to a kwasi but breakthroughs in various disciplines, including artificial intelligence, virtual reality, videogaming, mind-reading and related technologies. These take time and involve various key people, many of whom seem to be of mixed parentage and have wandered around the world.
We also follow what has been happening in the world while the development is going on. Initially, the product is only for the rich and only a small amount are produced so the world at large is not really affected. Because of climate change, there are huge migrations North and a huge amount of social unrest. We learn that the USA loses a major war and that a US national becomes Pope, even though he has been sentenced to life imprisonment for murder. We also learn about 0Sing, a sort of international secret service whose main aim is to stop intelligent machines taking over.
The development of the brain transfer procedure is fraught with problems and many people die during the testing. This is one of the many issues not mentioned in the official story. We also learn who might have been the author(s) of the official story.
It is eventually solved but, again, only for a small minority of people, i.e. the very rich. However, global problems continue. The war the US loses is, of course, against the Chinese and the then president attempts to press the red mutton. It does not work, not because it has been hacked but because the generals had disconnected it, not trusting the unstable president, whose campaign slogan had been Make America Great Again. I wonder if he was based on real person?
Latin America also breaks down, divided into zones not controlled by anyone but where drugs are freely produced. And of course, there are also viruses. We later get a religious war.
We get a detailed account of all the various demands people have for their virtual reality, such as being characters in a book (various one are suggested including, of course, Fifty Shades of Grey and many of the classics of modern Latin American literature, such as Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude).
There are lots of key developments in 天 but it is the Chinese that make the major development, under their great leader Dame Ding, producing a collective 天 so that everyone can benefit and not just the rich. Other countries follow later.
But it is not as simple as that our narrator manages to dig deep and find people who are willing to talk and what they tell her is everything is not as it seems, it is not all sweetness and light. We spent thousands of years trembling with fear under the power of those idiot gods; now we tremble with pleasure under the power of such intelligent technologies. We have made progress, of course we have. But have we? Are they still deceiving us? Is there another way? And what about those who do not want 天?
Caparrós gives us a very detailed account of what happened between now and 2072, when this novel is set and our narrator is carrying out her investigation. We learn of all the technologies involved, the special people and their inspiration, the world outside, which is not doing well, the philosophy behind the various approaches as well as the opposition to what is happening. Clearly he has given a lot of thought to the idea, even if the novel may seem to be a conspiracy theory novel, with an investigator carrying out her investigation and finding that all is not as it seems. He uses humour and satire (e.g. Trump) but most of the book is deadly serious and, perhaps, apart, obviously, from the idea of immortality, the theme may well be described as that, as usual, those in charge, are once again trying to deceive us.
First published in Spanish by Random House in 2020
No English translation